Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jim Harbaugh: Coaching Primer

I'll get into more things later, but wanted to at least give a brief primer on Michigan's new Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh.

Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
Jim Harbaugh, throughout his coaching tenure, has ran a predominately West Coast Offense based offense. He prefers to be a bit more run heavy than many of the WCO predecessors, but he's willing to mix it up. He favors FBs and H-Backs and loves to utilize a variety of man blocking schemes with them to make it more difficult to key on players as a defense. Pulls, short traps, long traps, whams, leads, kicks, seals, he'll use whatever he can to give a different look to the defense.

The Key Play

And that's what's at the heart of his offense. His playbook isn't incredibly deep, what it is is very detail oriented. While he got a bit more diverse in the NFL (with more practice time), he still focused more on being able to execute the same plays, based on predefined keys, reads, sets, etc, than he did about tricking the opponent with a complex playbook.

Seth Fisher, MGoBlog
He's a big fan of motions and utilizes a plethora of formations, as most WCO-types are wont to do. He does this in order to find advantages in numbers and leverage, while forcing the defense to tip its hand. Overload formations and unbalanced formations are a norm for a Harbaugh lead offense, so while defenses can run their base stuff, they often do so at the risk of being out-flanked or out-leveraged at the point of attack, or cheating to much to strength and leaving the weakside open. More bodies at the point of attack, more gaps that need to be filled, more run fits needing to be done by DBs, and that's how Harbaugh's offense move the ball on the ground.

Seth Fisher, MGoBlog

And off of all that comes the threat of play action. By switching up on play action blocking schemes, pulling guards or utilizing slide protections, hard fakes, soft fakes, all those things, he gives a lot for the defense to think about because there are simply so many looks the defense must account for. The overload and unbalanced formations make it exceedingly difficult to call plays as a defense as well. The variety of protection schemes, the numbers aligned to one side of the formation, and the motions, make calling anything but base defenses much more of a guessing game. Sure, you guess right and you can snuff out a play, but if you guess wrong, you've got no chance. In that way, like a spread playbook, it forces defenses to remain vanilla or risk playing a game of rock, paper, scissors every down. Play a passive defense and get caught with too few bodies at the point of attack, play too aggressive of a defense and get caught with wide open spaces and guys with serious pass/run responsibility conflicts.

Spider = Slide Protection, 3 = Direction of Slide, Y Banana = Y-TE running Banana Route

With overload formations, he can also overload zones in the passing game, which is difficult for defenses that focus so heavily on stopping the run. Triangles, quick 2-man reads, and getting the ball out of the QB's hand allow the offense to stay on track and remain balanced. By building in hot routes into his offense (as many WCOs do) he again has the focus of keeping the chains moving and getting the ball out of the receiver's hands and into the playmaker's hands in space.

And like many WCOs from the days of yore, Harbaugh prefers to have a viable running threat at QB. This isn't to say he'll be putting Braxton Miller behind center, but a guy like Steve Young, a guy that can roll the pocket, scramble, and have a handful of designed runs a game is preferred. Harbaugh's last three QBs were Andrew Luck at Stanford (ran for 453 yards at 8.2 ypc in Harbaugh's last season), Alex Smith with the 49ers (ran for 179 and 132 yards in two seasons; was previously an Urban Meyer QB), and finally Colin Kaepernick (ran for 415, 524, and 639 in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively; was previously a the QB at Nevada, one of the places where the pistol formation was popularized). Heck, Harbaugh himself was a run threat, averaging 5.0 ypc in his pro career. And with the 49ers, he increasingly implemented spread schemes to fit his heavy personnel tendencies. The proof is in the pudding that this is a classic WCO with modern spread principles mixed in.

Jim Light, Jim Light Football
At heart, Jim Harbaugh is still a QB. He still probably thinks he can go out there and play QB. He's cocky, he's confident, he's brash; rivals will hate him and his team will love him. He'll rub people the wrong way, including his own fans, when he loses, but he's also a winner, so losing doesn't happen often. And with him, it all starts with QB play. He tends to coach the QBs personally, allowing for an Offensive Coordinator to coach a different position group. Here's him at a clinic.

And with these skills you can go out and win QB Challenge in the QB Club

You can take on a Walrus in a push up contest

You can go on Saved By the Bell and make it out without being stabbed by Screech

And yet, despite being a perfectionist, if you do all the things he preaches, you can still manage to find some time with Dad to go watch what is possibly America's Greatest TV Show (not named The Simpsons)

So, yeah, Michigan fans...

Substitute khakis

You got your guy

You got your guy


  1. Great piece!! I'm really hoping you'll do some in depth stuff on what to expect from Harbaugh in year 1.

    1. Thanks! I definitely plan on doing more in depth stuff on his offense this off season.